Friends of the Earth ‘Bees in Danger’ awareness meeting, 21st November 2012: Part 2

A follow-on post from yesterday’s, on a Friends of the Earth ‘Bees in danger’ meeting I went to on Wednesday night. Our second talk of the evening was from Rob Mitton, an MSc student from Royal Holloway College, who explained scientific findings so far on the effects of neonicotinoids on bees.

Neonicotinoids are a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically related to nicotine. They work as neural agonists, building up in the brain of insects and exciting too many neural paths, leading to paralysis and death. They have been introduced fairly recently, after their development began with work in the 1980s by Shell and the 1990s by Bayer. The neonicotinoid imidacloprid is currently the most widely used insecticide in the world.

Rob’s research has focused on Bombus terrestius (buff-tailed bumbles) in particular, the species most favoured by farmers for pollination. His study involved dosing colonies with sugar water containing realistic field concentrations of neonicotinoids, and comparing the effected colonies with a control group. Unfortunately he wasn’t allowed to discuss his findings yet, because his research has not yet undergone peer review.

Bumble bee landing on borage

Bumble bee landing on borage

However, he did tell us plenty about research studies carried out by other scientists, and how pesticides work.

The LD-50 test

When the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) decides if a pesticide is safe for use, it uses the ‘LD-50’ benchmark. If a certain dose of pesticide kills 50% or above of the test subject, for example bee colonies, it is not approved for use; but at levels 49% or under dying the pesticide can be approved.


So Defra is only looking to see what percentage of bees in their test studies die, typically over a fairly short time period. But in real life, bees are not necessarily killed outright by exposure to neonicotinoids, but instead suffer olfactory memory side-effects such as difficulty learning and remembering fruitful food sources. This ‘olfactory memory’ issue has been shown in research carried out in  laboratory controlled conditions; now we need more research in the field to force governments to take it seriously.

Double trouble

So far, most pesticide research required by governments before they approve a pesticide for use is done as short, sharp acute exposure studies. In reality, out in our towns and country-side, colonies are foraging over long time periods and face combinations of pesticides used in conjunction with each other by different gardeners or farmers.

One pesticide might not cause acute problems, but what happens when bees pick up multiple doses from several places? When each forager returns to the hive she regurgitates some of her nectar to share with her sisters (trophallaxis), so what one bee receives many others quickly do too. Experiments using coloured nectar have found that within 24 hours of nectar being brought back by just ten foragers 50% of the colony had the nectar within their honey stomach.

Neonicotinoids and pyrethroids together

Rob proudly told us that Dr Richard Gill, Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the University of Holloway, has just had his paper ‘Combined pesticide exposure severely affects individual- and colony-level traits in bees‘ published in the king of journals, Nature. In conjunction with two colleagues, Richard studied how being exposed to the combination of two pesticides (neonicotinoid and pyrethroid) at concentrations that could approximate field-level doses affected Bombus terrestius bumbles.

Some of the bumble colonies in their study were fed sugar water with the two pesticides in, but no pollen, and fitted with tiny RFID tags to track their foraging activities. The pesticide dosed group came back with less pollen than the control group. The team also found that the pesticides increased worker mortality, leading to significant reductions in brood development and colony success.

Buff tailed bumblebee on elderflower

Buff tailed bumblebee on elderflower

Inspecting helps varroa reproduce?

There was a lot of lively discussion and questions from the audience afterwards. One man introduced himself as a “natural beekeeper and scientist” and then went on to suggest that inspecting hives causes varroa to reproduce more quickly. He reckons that varroa reproduce best at lower temps than the 34-35°C (93-94°F) temps the bees strive to keep their brood nest at – so by opening the hive, beekeepers cause the temperature to be lowered, helping the varroa out. I wanted to investigate his theory further, and found this information on

“Avoid shade and keep colonies warm and dry. There are several reports of colonies faring better against mites when kept out in the open. Rosenkranz (1988) found that varroa prefer relatively cool temperatures of 75-88°F, well below the central brood nest temperature of 95°F. Harris, et al. (2003) state that “research by others has shown that high temperatures and extremes in relative humidity within the broodnest of a colony of bees will reduce the number of varroa mites that lay eggs.”

Hmm, our colony is in the shade, but not much we can do about that as the whole Ealing apiary is in the shade. Without trees the risk of vandalism would probably go up considerably. But is opening a hive up for a short time period really going to cool the bees down substantially? I am very skeptical about this. The advice from Beebase and our bee inspectors is to inspect regularly, and I don’t want to lose my bees to AFB/EFB or risk them swarming.

A gardening tip I heard at the meeting: use nemotode worms as an organic form of pest control. No slug pellets please!

Further reading:

Defra took a fresh look at the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides, following the publication of several new studies in 2012 suggesting that low doses of neonicotinoid insecticides can have sub-lethal effects on bees with consequences for bee populations.

They concluded that none of the studies gives unequivocal evidence that sub-lethal effects with serious implications for colonies are likely to arise from current uses of neonicotinoids. However, they have decided to update the process for assessing the risks of pesticides to bees in the light of recent research developments. The new process should include the development of a new risk assessment for bumble bees and solitary bees, alongside an updated risk assessment for honey bees.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
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18 Responses to Friends of the Earth ‘Bees in Danger’ awareness meeting, 21st November 2012: Part 2

  1. Gary Rondeau says:

    HI Emily, I’m glad you are following the Neonic issue. Here are a couple of papers you might like to read as well, if you haven’t already:

    Pettis JS, vanEngelsdorp D, Johnson J, and Dively G (2012) Pesticide exposure in honey bees results in increased levels of the gut pathogen Nosema. Naturwissenschaften DOI10.1007/s00114-011-0881

    Vidau C, Diogon M, Aufauvre J, Fontbonne R, Vigue`s B, et al. (2011) Exposure to Sublethal Doses of Fipronil and Thiacloprid Highly Increases Mortality of Honeybees Previously Infected by Nosema ceranae. PLoS ONE 6(6): e21550. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021550

    Cornman RS, Tarpy DR, Chen Y, Jeffreys L, Lopez D, et al. (2012) Pathogen Webs in Collapsing Honey Bee Colonies. PLoS ONE 7(8): e43562. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043562

    My concern is with synergistic effects between the insecticides and the usual pathogens bees are exposed to. The studies above looked at interactions with Nosema, but I could imagine similar interactions with bee viruses.

    Do you and your fellow UK beekeepers have much problem with classic “CCD” symptoms, where the bees go down rapidly, leaving a dwindling brood nest and only a handful of bees at the end?



    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks for the links. I do feel that bees are facing a ‘perfect storm’ of factors acting in combination against them – pesticides, habitat loss, climate change, non-native pests – it’s all too much at once.

      CCD is not officially recognised as a problem here, and I haven’t come across any beekeepers who have experienced it. Obviously beekeepers lose colonies but the cause usually seems to be high varroa infestations or bees getting isolated from their stores in the winter.


  2. Teresa Cleveland Wendel says:

    I planted clover instead of grass for our lawn. The bees love it. But now I have to be careful when I go barefoot.


  3. How frequently do you inspect and how long is the hive open? In a vertical hive I have no trouble believing that warm inner air rising out the top would quickly cause the internal temperature to approach the ambient. What strikes me as critical is how quickly the internal temperature is restored once the hive is reassembled and I do not know the typical BTU-rating for a honeybee.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Once a week during swarm season, mostly around temps of 15C or above. The hive is probably open for about ten-twenty mins. I don’t know how quickly the internal temp is restored, would be fascinated to see research on this. Have seen times when a hive has been knocked over or left open overnight and the colony was fine – but that doesn’t mean to say the brood survived.


  4. beatingthebounds says:

    Fascinating and alarming in equal measure.


  5. Angelia Sims says:

    Thank-you Emily for your generous knowledge on my bee. I really appreciate that. I read quite a few articles about bees after I took the photos to get an idea of them in our area. Of course, the internet doesn’t tell you everything. So good to hear from a real life bee keeper. Wow! I, truly, have a heart for these ladies now and will do everything I can to BEE aware. Thanks for doing what you do.


  6. The neonicotinoid issue is being considered by the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons, the written evidence makes interesting reading:
    Could anyone tell me why the BBKA did not submit evidence, several local associations have done but not the central command.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks Philip for the link. I found the evidence submitted by Dr Christopher Connolly at the University of Dundee particularly compelling. His conclusion is “In summary, we are playing ‘Environmental Ker-Plunk’, using pesticides to remove insect species (possibly also higher species) and we don’t know which species will be lost and how many other species will collapse with them. Eventually, the entire ecosystem will collapse unless we monitor and regulate pesticide use appropriately. With the growing world population, with increasing appetites, we have to learn to live with pesticides, not just ignore them.”


  7. B1 says:

    my guess is that the BBKA want to keep their head down after the problems they faced with endorsements previously.

    For myself and any beekeeper I speak to – including commercial ones – we do not see any issues with neonics and most commercial guys relish the neonic-dressed OSR as a good source of pollen and nectar.

    We don’t get CCD in this country as far as I am aware and honeybees are doing very well. Varroa and the viruses that are vectored by them is the big problem. There is also concern about lack of forage and all the biodiversity stuff. More Clover would be great!


    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks for your comment. Varroa and its accompanying viruses are the big worry for me too, but I feel the pesticides problem does not help and may be implicated in the CCD problems in the US, particularly amongst commercial beekeepers trucking their bees from crop to crop for pollination. As far as I’m aware we don’t have many beekeepers doing long-distance crop pollination here.

      Yes, more clover please! Teresa (who commented above) is setting us a great example with her clover lawn.


      • I talked to several beekeepers this summer and I was suprised to hear that none of them had any concerns with neonics. The question I ask is “How do you know you dont have a problem with neonics, even low level?”

        I also know beekeepers down here in Devon that put hives by the OSR which is presumably seed treated – isnt there a worry that the honey will have small amounts of neonics in it?


        • Emily Heath says:

          Hi Philip,

          I guess the answer is that there isn’t a problem as far as they know – maybe they haven’t noticed any effect since the neonic treated crops arrived, or at least not the dramatic effect that occurred when varroa arrived here. Some of the professional beekeepers may have had their honey tested and found no contamination.


  8. Alex Jones says:

    It would be great if there was an independent body free from government or corporate influence doing independent testing of various challenges that impact bees.


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